What I have learned in my time at LAHF

Damian Hebron

Reflections by LAHF Director Damian Hebron


Today I am leaving my role with LAHF after fifteen years and as I think back, this has been a pivotal time for arts and health. I have worked at LAHF alongside running the arts programme at Cambridge University Hospitals and so have seen policy and practice evolve over that time as we have moved from being an eccentric preserve on the fringes of both arts and health to something more mainstream.

The publication of Creative Health last year and the launch of the Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance this March demonstrate the breadth and vibrancy of this work. Thousands of people signed up to the new Alliance within weeks of it launching. Perceptions have shifted.

I hope that the Arts Council will recognise the significance of this work as it develops its new strategy. Other cultural bodies – the Heritage Lottery Fund, the BBC, the Arts and Humanities Research Council – increasingly refer to the link between culture and health and wellbeing. The Department of Health is starting to support social prescribing.

These changes are down to the work of people delivering excellent arts and health practice. We have upped our game as practitioners, demanding better quality work, collaborating with researchers, learning from each other, sharing our skills, knowledge and expertise. We work better with clinicians, with arts therapists and we place patients and service users closer to the heart of the work. There is still poor quality arts in health practice and there are still organisations which focus more on their own status than on the outcomes for their participants but, as a whole, we are maturing and offering more and better opportunities for people to benefit from the healing power of cultural engagement.

There is still lots to do. Arts in health is “hideously white” it is too middle class, our language is sometimes lazy, we don’t think about evaluation early enough, we don’t look after our artists, we still have egos. Many of these issues were flagged up in our recent blog series – the fact they are there indicates that as a group we know the solutions to the problems – we just need to collaboratively grasp the nettle.

But that nettle grasping is for someone else to undertake – I am really excited to see what the new LAHF Director will make of this job – and how the organisation and the wider sector that we serve will shape and grow in the years to come. All of this will be defined by the current LAHF board – who are a genuinely great set of inspirational thinkers and leaders. They are engaged and bright with a vast breadth of expertise and I am excited by what they will think up and deliver together.

When I started with LAHF there was no board – just a committee of passionate people who worked in this area and could see the potential for it to grow. Those people and all the subsequent trustees gave their time freely to help grow LAHF. I can only single out the Chairs over the years: Judith Mellor, Beth Elliott, Andrew Potter, Guy Noble, Victoria Hume, Amanda Smethurst, Moira Sinclair and Hugh Steward. Each one took LAHF another step forward – and you only have to look at the history of LAHF in my previous blog to see how far we have come.

Well before my involvement in LAHF though, there was a ‘vanguard’ of arts and health practitioners. People whose person-centred approach, genuine passion for the arts and integrity forged a version of best practice in arts in health in the 1970s and 80s which I think is still completely valid and relevant today. Where we are now, is largely the result of these pioneers, from a personal perspective I would like to mention Ali Clough, Mike White, Guy Eades, Langley Brown, Brian Chapman, Mary Robson, arts and health as a sector owes them a huge debt.

I have loads of respect for the people who approach this work in a different way to me and lots of you have been central to developing the new Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance. The right people will know who they are but among them are bridge builders who never got flustered when others where rude or boorish; there were the rigorous, pragmatic types who kept things realistic and made sure there were actions delivered and not too much talking. Then there were the ones who were occasionally bolshy – because that is needed sometimes – and we can’t all be peacemakers. The people who make you laugh and the ones who will buy you a drink when it all gets too much. Most of all I respect anyone who has kept going in this field for any length of time, artist, practitioner, commissioner, champion – it takes determination and steel to keep all the plates spinning all the time. It is hard to so often feel alone – like a fish swimming against the tide. I do want to pay a particular tribute to Alan Howarth who has been so steadfast in his support for this work. Hopefully at times and in different ways, LAHF has felt like somewhere you could find the rest of your school (of fish) and swim together for a bit.

At heart this work depends on enthusiasm, optimism, hard work and good humour. You need to be open to working with everyone and happy to keep going – often in adversity. Two people I’ve worked with closely over the years embody this. Alex Coulter who has done so much especially over the past three years in support of the All Party Parliamentary Group and launching the Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance has been good humoured and open to new ideas and has sought no special status in developing this work – genuinely a great leader. And finally Neil Parker. Anyone who has had anything to do with LAHF over the past 7 years will have encountered Neil’s positivity and can-do approach. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me if he is always cheerful – and the times I have had to simply reply – yes he is! At times I think it is possible to take that positivity and warmth for granted – which should never happen – LAHF board – do not take him for granted! Neil has been the best person one could wish to work with.

So much has happened to bring this work to the forefront of political discourse and policy over the past 15 years – but what has been achieved has happened through collaboration and collective working – by stitching together our stories into a larger and more coherent narrative. And it comes from the fundamental belief that access to cultural expression is a basic human right that everyone should be able to exercise regardless of their health, age, disability or where they live.

So here’s to celebrating and exercising our human rights!

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